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Part 1 of guest post by Tinia Pina

Why the adoption of hydroponics in India is important

Sustainable farming solutions in countries with arid climates such as India have caused an increased interest in hydroponic farms, which are farms that practice growing plants without soil in a nutrient rich water solution. Furthermore, because of its economic feasibility and ability to serve as a possible solution to India’s dwindling availability of fertile soil or clean and surplus water, this practice of agriculture resolves many of the issues that challenge year-round growing. Combined with drought conditions and the vagaries of global warming, Indian agriculturalists are fighting a drastic reduction in the availability of locally grown food for India's large population.

Photo credit: The New Indian Express

Pioneers in India propose hydroponics as a solution that can change the way horticulture is done there. The advantages of hydroponics include but are not limited to the following:
  • Requires no soil
  • Enables for the reuse of water
  • Provides greater control of nutrients to prevent over nourished crops
  • Enables ease of harvesting
  • Enables ease of pest management and food safety controls
  • Increases food production stability, providing higher yields
  • Provides off-season production when market prices are highest
In this two-part article series, we will be discussing why hydroponics or controlled environment agriculture (CEA) is feasible and why more awareness should be raised to the simple technologies that help make this happen.

First, let’s talk numbers!
As of July 2016, only 30,000 hectares (ha) have polyhouse structures (also known as a ‘hoop house’) or covered cultivation in India. While the national average for vegetable yields in India is 17 tons/ha; in developed countries it is more than 40 tons/ha. This large disparity is due to many of the aforementioned challenges. The latest available figures from 2014 state that only 17% of India's agricultural land is used for horticultural crops, giving a total of 270.46M metric tons of horticulture production. This makes the availability of vegetables per day per person just 374 grams. In a study performed by the National Restaurant Association of India and Technopak, India's food services market is estimated at $48B. In five years, it is estimated to increase to $78B. How to meet this projected increase will largely depend on the amount of land provisioned for covered food cultivation and the technologies incorporated.

If lettuce were grown in India today, it could be 30% cheaper than imported and provide large positive, social impacts to their economy. Imported cherry tomatoes can cost Rs 1,000/ kg; if domestically produced, cherry tomatoes could be priced as low as Rs 200. Exotic vegetable production is highly suitable for the hydroponic farmer. Introducing an assured market with consumers, the exotic vegetable market, which includes produce such as golden beetroots, Caribbean peppers, thirteen varieties of lettuce, asparagus, artichokes, fennel, and Okahijiki, a Japanese land seaweed, is increasing. India is currently importing more than 85% of its exotic vegetables, creating a growth rate of 15-20% per year. Certainly, hydroponics or CEA can help fuel this growth given the farming expertise that exists in India.

Revenue potential
When the land is already owned, capital costs per acre every 5 years are Rs 30.5 lakhs. Operational costs, with tomatoes as the example crop, in 1 acre per year are Rs 9 lakhs and revenue typically averages around 33.5 lakhs. If the land is independently owned the profit potential of 15 lakhs per year is slightly less than if it were leased, averaging around 16.5 lakhs per year.

It’s important to note that in the first year a greenhouse is purchased, 80% depreciation is available under the Indian Income Tax Act to the buyer. 75% bank financing is available through agriculture loans and a 20% subsidy on greenhouses is available from National Horticulture Board (NHB). Thankfully, insurance is also available for portable greenhouses in India.

There are challenges…
Innate to soil based agriculture, there are certainly challenges relevant to hydroponics. Issues facing the use of hydroponics in India include droughts and unpredictable weather, rising temperatures, polluted water systems, lack of irrigation, poor water management, and high freight costs from India.

…but there are also opportunities…
There is a viable market due to population growth that is ready to purchase hydroponically grown food within India. This customer market includes retail and hotel, and fast food chains, railway catering, foreign food service companies, NGO’s, and defense establishments. The following further supports how hydroponics is a lucrative opportunity to deploy in India:
  • India has rich climatic conditions positioning it favorably for market hydroponic produce
  • Labor costs are favorable with intelligent human capital
  • An abundant growth market already exists due to India's large population
  • In depth knowledge of crop cycles, food safety and pest management, and hydroponic methodologies exists
In our second article, we will explore a more in depth analysis of existing technologies that are simple, very low cost, and can leverage local resources to create a viable hydroponic farms in India.

Tinia Pina is the CEO and Founder of Re-Nuble
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